State governments play a critical role in facilitating broadband deployment, and there are several key policies and programs that can significantly impact access when implemented at the state level.
Preserving and promoting local choice. One of the most impactful choices a state can make to promote broadband access is allowing room for local choice when it comes to community networks and small cell deployment.
Across the United States, about 500 communities have invested in municipal networks in some capacity. These networks have successfully connected communities that have otherwise been left behind by private investment to high-quality broadband at competitive prices. However, 20 states have laws that roadblock or outright bar these networks. Roadblocks include restricting network expansion or banning triple play services in a way that renders the network business model unfeasible, or limiting state funding to private entities. States that see their rural and hard-to-reach communities being connected are often those that have allowed local networks room to thrive.
Some states are rolling back previously enacted municipal broadband preemptions. Last year, California passed a law removing restrictions on community networks. Most recently, Arkansas passed legislation that takes a small step toward empowering community networks. North Carolina is also considering a modification of its 2011 municipal broadband ban.
State-level small cell deployment legislation is often billed as a way to streamline deployment, but in reality these laws – currently on the books in 23 states – limit municipalities’ ability to negotiate for equitable deployment and fair compensation for the use of the public rights-of-way. Local leaders are eager to see next-generation wireless services in their community, and when communities are given a say, wide-reaching, public-interest deployments are possible. Many competitive small cell deployment agreements would not have been likely had the municipality been limited in its authority to negotiate the deal.
State grant programs. States can leverage and allocate funding in creative ways in order to support broadband planning and infrastructure deployment.
Minnesota’s Border-to-Border Broadband Infrastructure Grant Program funds expansion to un- and under-served portions of the state. Eligible entities – notably, including municipal networks and cooperatives – are able to receive up to $5 million to cover up to 50 percent of a project’s infrastructure cost, including project planning, permits, labor, and more. Projects funded by the grant have ranged from connecting a dozen locations to connecting thousands.
Maine’s ConnectME program offers infrastructure grants up to $100,000 for projects that build out last mile service to communities currently unserved by 25/3 Mbps speeds. The program also offers planning grants to municipalities and local or regional community organizations in order to fund plans to identify and pursue local broadband needs.
Colorado’s Broadband Fund provides grants to private ISPs or to telephone or electric cooperatives for new infrastructure builds in areas not currently served by 25/3 Mbps. Colorado’s program is unique because it incorporates progressive right of first refusal language, in which an incumbent provider must match the speed and price of service that a new entrant is offering in order to exercise its right of first refusal.
New York’s Broadband Program uses a reverse auction method to allocate $500 million worth of grants to un- and underserved areas. Eligible projects must involve a partnership with a private entity, and funds can be used for up to 80 percent of capital expenditures for new investments or network upgrades.
West Virginia has funneled Community Development Block Grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development into supporting broadband deployment throughout the state. Most recently, the state announced that a total of $2.4 million in CDBG funds in West Virginia would go toward broadband projects.
One Touch Make Ready (OTMR or “Climb Once”). OTMR streamlines the deployment of new infrastructure when attached to poles.
Typically, in order for a new provider to attach wires (like fiber) to a pole, each owner of the wires that are already attached to the pole must be asked separately to assess and move their wires if necessary to make room for the new attacher. This process is called “make ready.” Incumbent providers already attached to the poles don’t have any incentive to move quickly, so the process is typically very long and capital intensive for the new entrant, who has to bear the full cost of the make ready work. In addition, the ongoing work creates noise, traffic, and temporary service interruptions.
OTMR replaces this existing practice with something much more streamlined, by allowing a single contractor (or a select group of contractors), approved by all existing providers and pole owners, to perform all make ready work at one time. This results in faster, safer work, and a lower cost of entry for new providers.
Maine has implemented OTMR, and the policy is also included in legislation that is currently pending in Vermont. State-level OTMR action is particularly impactful because municipalities are rarely the owners of poles, and can face challenges when attempting to implement the policy on a local level.
Read more about OTMR here.
States are uniquely positioned to support broadband investment because they have a close understanding of the needs in their communities and an ability to leverage a wide range of resources. Ultimately, state policy that encourages competition and empowers local solutions goes a long way in working toward a more connected future.